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Seneca, Selma and Stonewall: A Few Thoughts on Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

January 25, 2013

I may be a huge nerd for public oratory, but even I find inaugural addresses sort of boring. I haven’t ever taken an interest, except perhaps for the time a grade-school history teacher told me (wrongly) that William Henry Harrison’s long, cold-weather inaugural address may have contributed to his early death. Imagine my surprise, then, when President Obama said something that made me actually want to go back and read the transcript of his second inaugural address. He managed to compare African American people, women and gay people in just three words: Seneca, Selma and Stonewall. They all start with the same letter, but were these events really that similar? And why did this simple phrase attract so much attention in the media?

Here’s the passage in question:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.

It’s really the second half of this passage that’s interesting (honestly, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard truths called “self-evident” in reference to the Declaration, I could pay off my school loans). Many of the reactions to it have pointed out that it’s the first time any president has mentioned gay rights in an inaugural address, let alone compared it to two other, more culturally legitimated movements.

Part of what’s remarkable about this passage is how much work it does and also how much it glosses over. Seneca Falls was a planned, days long convention held in the mid 19th century. Selma—a reference to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights—was planned too, although it was a far more precarious proposition insofar as it took three attempts and armed intervention before protesters could get all the way through. Stonewall, on the other hand was—and I really don’t care to euphemize this because I admire gay history for what it is—a bar riot. At least one commentator pointed out that Stonewall had more in common with Rosa Parks’ refusal to leave her seat on the bus than it did with Selma or Seneca.

But then, perhaps these differences say more about the changing nature of civil rights organizing than they do about the differences between these social movements. In other words, maybe it’s just a sign of the times: 1848 (Seneca) saw a convention, 1965 prompted a march and 1969 called for a more spontaneous action (which has been, probably erroneously, tied to the death of Judy Garland. But let’s all just agree to believe it was because that would be, well, awesome). I’ve had a few conversations this past week that have made me re-think the value of getting caught up in the differences between what protesters did in the1840s, the 1960s and what they’ve been doing lately. These were different times that created different situations and presented different rhetorical demands.

So fine, it’s OK to gloss over a little bit of historical difference to make a point. On the other hand, what Obama is saying sounds an awful lot like a progress myth, or a kind of meta-narrative in which, to quote the Beatles, “it’s getting better all the time.” Society is keeps on chugging forward. Two steps forward one step backward. The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward morality. Aren’t these phrases tiresome? They’re good ideas and, more importantly, good things to believe in and strive toward, but they can distract us from important historical realizations (such as, for example, the realization that racism in the United States did not decline steadily after the Civil War, but rather enjoyed considerable revivals over the years).

I teach a freshmen composition class at Carnegie Mellon in which my students and I critically examine the comparisons that people make between movements, especially African American civil rights and the gay rights movement. I’ve been teaching the class for years and, as is the case with the best classes, my views have evolved over time thanks to the excellent work of my students. I’ve become increasingly convinced that making the comparison is problematic when we just invoke it as self-evident and perfectly true and leave it at that.

I know what you’re thinking: Doug is cranky and probably needs a nap. I won’t deny it; I’ll just say this: I’m more excited about the conversation that Obama’s remark has started than I am about the remark itself, which isn’t to say that I’m not happy about the remark. It’s great for gay rights to make it into an inaugural address, and in such wonderful company, too.

If you want to know more:

  • Regarding the rumors about William Henry Harrison taking ill because of his long inaugural address: if could be shown to be true that the speech had killed him, I would use it as a cautionary tale in my classes: “And that’s why you don’t give long speeches outdoors in January.”
  • If you want to learn more about the progress myth, see the works of philosophers Michel Foucault (The Archeology of Knowledge) and Karl Popper. You can also re-read MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he also criticizes the progress myth by pointing out that seeing progress as an inevitably result of time is just, and I’m paraphrasing here, nutso.
  • For more information on the history of racism in the United States (and an eloquent explanation of the problems inherent in the progress myth), see Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.
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